A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“We fight for justice, for equal rights for everyone, regardless of who they are or what they believe.”
EPCOT. Before the glittering traipses of the Walt Disney World theme park adorned the Florida landscape in 1971, the acronym was a concept constructed within the mind of Walt Disney. It was a concept that gave birth to the eventual terrible film Tomorrowland but here in The Americans EPCOT serves as a hazy reminder of a utopia in a much more mature, disquieting fashion. Disney’s blueprint for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was borne out of a desire to see a clean, glimmering utopia of a city free of the grime, crime, and dirt that he saw as becoming germane to the American urban landscape. Part of that can be seen (and rightfully so) as a display of the American financial oligarchy, desperate to close itself off from the rest of the rabble. The other part of it came from a push for ingenuity that would raise the very concept of the American future into unexplored dimensions. From transportation to sewage to urban planning, EPCOT was, insidiousness in societal implications aside, a triumph of ideas and imagination that gave rise in semblances towards actual technological developments. To the 1966 Walt Disney, EPCOT symbolized the absolute hope of the future, a community for a “great, big, beautiful tomorrow”. It was a community that could be assembled and transported beyond its own borders, an ambassador of progress, if you will. The enthusiasm from Disney towards this project was unabated but the dream died along with him. For all of its detailed branches, EPCOT always seemed too vast, too scattered, too much like the heavenly structures Nina navigates in the gulags. It died in a haze after a handful more attempts at resurrecting it, most of them halfhearted in their ultimate stamina. A shadow of the original idea lives today, a reminder of an ephemeral existence that is left in the wake of a utopia that inevitably escapes.
The Americans is well-known for its simmering tension that makes the screen feel that it would crack at any given second with minimal effort. The subtlety in its movement is comparable to Mad Men, the story moving at an incremental pace while the vast majority of progress occurring within the emotional expressions of the characters themselves. It’s a quiet craft that is extremely difficult to get right. Experimental is a triumph of that particular storytelling craft the show has executed so brilliantly, a simmering thematic hour where each cut constricts more and more until it feels as if there is no more room to breathe. Those cuts can make the episode at times feel frustrating, but the material as it is is so thoroughly engaging that the payoff isn’t even the most necessary requirement here. The script alone is worthy of all accolades, transferring the theme of the utopia EPCOT stood for in each sequence before it delivered the brutal knockout. But the camerawork was right there with the script, ensuring that each punch would be delivered with a visual panache. From the opening shot of Clark gazing at a Martha coming out of a hazy focus to the steam from the glanders container in the oven, the episode visually reinforced that idea of a utopian chase being in vain and not once did it feel overwhelming. That subtlety works in significant part because the show has arrived at this juncture of potential escape in an organic fashion. From the moment the show revealed to Paige that her parents are indeed Russian spies, a sense of claustrophobia has engulfed the show and as Phillip and Elizabeth learn with a dour note, there’s no escape to EPCOT anytime soon.
Elizabeth finds a utopia, however, but one that she knows that the cruelty of her life will deny her. The Americans, as much as it is anchored within the realms of an espionage narrative, is equivalently about the story of an immigrant family trying to find its place within a new, seemingly better, nation. She goes undercover as a Mary Kay saleswoman and it is a point of note that the closest friend she makes is a woman named Young-hee. Young-hee is a recent immigrant from South Korea whose family has adopted a thoroughfare many immigrant families are used to. She describes her family dinner as being a little bit of Korean and a little bit of that. There’s a longing in Elizabeth’s eyes as Young-hee describes her family dinner so succinctly, a dinner that Elizabeth wishes she could have, part Russian, part American. The dinner sequence itself is beautifully constructed, visually transforming that momentary pathos in her eyes into an experience that may be the most Elizabeth has ever connected with someone in States. Phillip, before the EST debacle, had a close friendship with Stan but to our knowledge, Elizabeth never had that close of a relationship with Sandra, for example, or anyone else. It’s early to say if her relationship with Young-hee will develop into a deeper friendship, but by Elizabeth’s own admission, she had fun, words that unfortunately will be assuredly becoming less keen in her lexicon. The most telling moment in that storyline, however, arrives when Young-hee notes the Cabbage Patch kids phenomenon of the early 1980s. She’s completely bemused as to why anyone would think that these horrifying things are worth having at all, but every time they’re on screen, her kids go crazy for them. “That’s America,” Elizabeth ruefully notes, but the underlying delight at this common connection is hard to miss.
Elizabeth and Phillip’s quandary with Pastor Tim has become, if possible, considerably more difficult. Their two main options on the floor are still fairly horrible ones. Elizabeth and Gabriel have a point where they note that Pastor Tim simply knows too much. Phillip has a point where he notes that if they kill off Pastor Tim, Paige isn’t an idiot and she can surmise whom is responsible for the murder of her closest confidant in probably about five to ten seconds. But there isn’t really a better option, especially once it’s confirmed that he revealed the truth to his wife. Elizabeth and Phillip approach him in a calm, soft manner, brushing off the label of “spies” in favor of the word “peace workers.” They describe their work as being that of working to prevent the nuclear threat, to ensure justice is meted out to everyone, regardless of whom they are or what they believe. Pastor Tim, by virtue of his job, is touchy on the subject of religion and he retorts with Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union and the oppression of Catholics in Poland. +“Our country isn’t perfect. Neither is this one.” is Elizabeth’s response and it’s an assertion that is vague and sharp enough so as to prevent significant argumentation on that front. The pastor’s response is an equally vague consideration of his options, but the point that seemed to have stuck the closest to him were Elizabeth and Phillip’s asks in regards to Paige and Henry. If they were to be arrested, the lives of their children would be destroyed and if Pastor Tim cares as much as he portends to, then he wouldn’t destroy their family. Paige herself realizes the hazy lines between a pastor and a friend. Phillip gently tells her about Pastor Tim spilling the beans to his wife, taking great care to ensure that he gives the pastor as much credence as possible. It’s not unlike Elizabeth’s confrontation with Paige in the kitchen, but the results may be considerably different, with Gabriel being infected by the glanders pathogen and the Jenningses placed into quarantine with William. “Guess we’re not going to EPCOT,” Phillip says ruefully, watching the smoke from the glanders container rising in the oven, smiling over the charred remains of their utopia.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“We’re all Americans, now.” The camera pivoting towards Elizabeth was a brilliant move
+“What we do is no different from what you do.”
+“When we were hired, we were called peaceworkers.”
+“I can never get rid of this, can I?” Talk about an unfortunate choice of words.
+“He cares about you, Paige. He doesn’t want to see you hurt.”
+Stan following Martha to Clark’s apartment
+“Sometimes I don’t mean it.”
+Gabriel and Claudia realizing the colossal mistake of trying to recruit Paige
+“We could use a friendly face at the FBI.”
+The hazy line of “exceptional punishment”
+“I don’t know what I know.”
+The wine moment
+“East meets West. It works for me.”
+“The Bureau does not feel, Stan.”
+“On return, I could only get three seats together.”
+Beautiful shot of the Capitol, from where William is approaching from one side and
Episode Title: Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow
Written by: Stephen Schiff
Directed by: Kevin Dowling
Image Courtesy: Slant Magazine